The University of Aberdeen announced that it will return the Benin Bronze in their possession to Nigeria, the first such commitment after a 40-year call for their return.
The return calls to the forefront the ethical dilemmas that face institutions that have built their collections on items looted and plundered from their rightful nations. While the sculpture is a prime example of Benin metallurgy capabilities, the Scottish University at least describes its possession by anyone besides the Nigerian people as “extremely immoral.”
What Are the Bronzes?
The Benin Bronzes refer to more than a thousand bronze and brass plaques and sculptures that were once displayed in the Kingdom of Benin, now modern-day Nigeria. They were created by the Edo people, and date as far back as the 11th century. They were commissioned for ancestral worship and used in rituals, thus they are important spiritual objects to the Edo people.
In January of 1897, on a mission to punish the Kingdom of Benin for refusing to pay tributes, a British force of 1,200 men burned Benin City to the ground. Soldiers stole the bronzes and kept them as keepsakes. Many were sold to private collectors, and eventually made their way to auction where they were bought by institutions, such as the University of Aberdeen did in 1957.
Discovery and Thievery
Activists and cultural groups have long denounced the theft of national artifacts by colonial “discoverers” who have taken these items for their own, and have called for their repatriation.
The Rapa Nui people of Easter Island have been attempting to bring home the “Moai” statue that resides in the British Museum. Not only is there cultural significance to these statues, but they are believed to contain the spirits of their deified ancestors. The statue was taken more than 150 years ago from the Chilean Island.
The most-visited item in the British Museum is the Rosetta Stone, an ancient tablet seized from Egypt in 1801. Cairo’s Supreme Council of Antiquities has been campaigning for its return, along with the bust of Nefertiti, since 2002.
Some activists have taken measures into their own hands, blatantly attempting to take items from museums, while live streaming the protest on Facebook.
These calls for the return of antiquities to their cultural homelands have been mildly successful, and are continually keeping open a discussion about who the rightful owners of these objects are.
From the Ashes
In the 1990s, British Labour Minister Bernie Grant petitioned the government to repatriate the artifacts. It has been a long road, but some of these precious bronzes will be making their way back to Nigeria.
The gesture by the University of Aberdeen appears to be pressuring other organizations, including the British Museum, to do the same. The British Museum claims to have around 900 objects from the Kingdom of Benin, with more than 100 on display.
Germany is now in talks to return 440 of the bronzes after announcing they would not be showcased in the new Berlin museum, the Humboldt Forum.
The Edo Museum of West African Art will be built on the site of the razed Benin City, bringing a sense of justice to the Edo community. Here, the returned artifacts along with other important pieces of Edo artwork will be displayed in their pre-colonial context.